Was District of Columbia Council member Trayon White Sr.’s blaming of a light snowfall on the Jewish banking family the Rothschilds the same as Women’s March organizer Tamika Mallory’s association with the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan?
Both have been criticized for anti-Semitism.
“The most, most important distinction I would make — and this is critical — is the response of the person,” said Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “Trayon White immediately apologized and was immediately willing to — and did — meet with people from Jewish community. That is not what happened with Tamika Mallory or her colleagues with the Women’s March. They doubled down, even tripled down. And have yet to apologize.”
White wrote a two-page letter of apology to fellow councilmembers last week, saying he had “read some misinformation” and spoke about issues he didn’t know much about.
“These past forty-eight hours have been filled with much self-inflicted pain, as I now fully comprehend the impact of my hurtful and insensitive comments,” he wrote. “I sincerely apologize to Members, staff and all whom I have offended. I would like to reiterate that my comments, despite having demonstrated a lack of compassion and accuracy, were not made in the spirit of meanness. Rather, they were made without an understanding or appreciation of the history and suffering of my fellow Americans who are Jewish.”
White went on to write that he had committed himself to “an immediate and rigorous personal education on this issue” and added that “this is a teachable moment that will last me a lifetime.”
The Mallory controversy arose following an event in February at a Nation of Islam convention in Chicago, where Farrakhan, as he has repeatedly in a 40-year career as head of the black nationalist group, devoted part of a speech to condemning Jews.
Among other things, Farrakhan denounced “Satanic Jews,” said that “when you want something in this world, the Jew holds the door,” and that he had “pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew — and I’m here to say, your time is up.”
Mallory was present at the event and later shared a photo of herself with Farrakhan on Instagram. Mallory defended her association with Farrakhan, citing the Nation of Islam’s success in bettering the lives of young black men and its anti-violence efforts. Jewish groups countered that there is no excuse for anti-Semitism, and after days of pressure, march organizers released a statement that said Farrakhan’s statements about Jews “are not aligned” with the group’s principles and asserting that the leaders “love and value our sister” Mallory.
Critics said the statement did not go far enough in condemning Farrakhan and Mallory’s presence at the event.
By contrast, White has been praised for his response to criticism.
Doron Ezickson, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League, released a statement last week welcoming White’s apology. Ezickson said his organization is open to working with and educating anyone who is open to it. The Women’s March activists haven’t shown that willingness.
“We see these as opportunities to allow folks who buy into conspiracy theories and forms of hate to reflect on that and learn from it,” he said, adding that White has so far been doing that work.
The relationship between the Nation of Islam and black activists is complicated, according to a recent article in The Atlantic by Adam Serwer, who is both Jewish and black. Farrakhan is both incendiary and alienating in his anti-Semitism, homophobia and sexism. But the Nation of Islam has operated as one of the only philanthropic organizations helping some of the poorest black neighborhoods and incarcerated black people for many years.
Serwer pointed to a speech by Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s Jewish mayor, that acknowledged the Nation of Islam could help reduce violence in certain neighborhoods.
“Emanuel echoed what many black communities had long since concluded — the Nation can be the least bad of the available options, especially in a city like Chicago where the police retain a reputation for lawlessness and brutality in minority neighborhoods,” Serwer wrote. “This is also where the resistance to condemning Farrakhan or the Nation can come from: a sense that despite the Nation’s many flaws, it is present for black people in America’s most deprived and segregated enclaves when the state itself is not present, to say nothing of those who demand its condemnation.”
Because other public figures have been reticent to condemn Farrakhan should be exactly the reason Jews commend White, said a recent op-ed in The Forward.
“His proactive efforts to mend any wounds caused by his words stood in stark contrast to the actions of some of the Women’s March leaders who grew defensive when asked to call out an anti-Semitic ally,” wrote activist Ben Faulding. “White’s reaction is a lesson to us all.”
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington wants to build connections between the Jewish community and communities like the one White represents, Siegel said.
Education on both sides can then happen, including the history of what Jews have faced and what anti-Semitism is, as well as why it’s dangerous, she added. Someone who was completely unexposed to Jews before could become a new partner and ally.
JTA News and Features contributed to this article.